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“Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage”: UNESCO has identified new forms of heritage to the extension of the system of listing World Heritage Sites

28 out of 60 nominations were added to the list, raising awareness of 'masterpieces' that are under threat from modernisation

How do you protect the drawings in the sand on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, or Indian Vedic chanters, or a millennium-old Chinese musical idiom that is practised by only 50 people or the skills of Bolivian medicine men who are familiar with the curative properties of nearly 1,000 plant species? These are just four of Unesco’s newly identified “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage”. In what amounts to an extension of the system of listing World Heritage Sites, Unesco has turned its attention to less tangible forms of global culture.

The very idea of trying to preserve the intangible may appear bizarre, but it has long been part of official practice in the Far East, particularly in Japan and Korea—the Ningyo Johruri Bunraku puppet theatre of Japan was declared “Important intangible cultural property” in 1955. Under Unesco’s definition, the intangible includes oral expressions and traditions, music and dance, rituals and mythology, knowledge and practices about nature and the universe, traditional craftsmanship and cultural spaces.

Out of 60 nominations for masterpiece status submitted to Unesco, the organisation selected 28 last month in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Yemen. These have now been added to the 19 originally listed by Unesco two years ago (The Art Newspaper, No. 120, December 2001, p.47). Unesco says the majority of the “masterpieces” on its list are currently under threat, mainly from modernisation, and this raises difficult questions about the best ways to protect them.

The purpose of the list is primarily to raise international awareness for what is for many people a new concept. It should also encourage national governments to protect the intangible heritage.

In a separate but related move, the Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted by Unesco on 17 October. The convention will come into force once it has been ratified by 30 states, and it will then require governments to compile national inventories of what should be protected. The convention will also set up an Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which will draw up further lists of “masterpieces”.

Under the convention, a fund will be established to assist masterpieces which are under threat—although the money available is likely to be relatively modest.

For the full list see: www.unesco.org/culture/heritige/intangible

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Saving drawings in the sand'